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Cat on a Hot Tiled Roof excerpt

Cat on a Hot Tiled Roof - Anna Nicholas

By Anna Nicholas

Chapter One

‘Phantom Sheep’

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A door slams shut. Someone’s clomping about downstairs. There’s an intruder in the house and a damned noisy one at that. I sit frozen in my seat, momentarily distracted by the raucous croaking of the frogs in the pond beneath my window. Give it a rest, boys, this is no laughing matter. There’s a sudden crash, and the sound of tinkling glass. Something dull and heavy, perhaps a wooden chair, keels over with a muffled thud. That’s it. My blood’s up as I hurtle barefoot out of my office eyrie with heart in mouth and pen in hand, ready to face my foe. So much for the amateur heroics, but what exactly have I in mind? Some twisted logic about the pen being mightier than the sword? Hotly, I descend the stairs, the marble reassuringly cool beneath my feet. A deep groaning rends the air and I stop dead in my tracks.

There in the middle of the entrada is my adversary. It’s observing me dispassionately with glazed eyes, jaws caught in a sideways motion as if chewing thoughtfully on gum. I slowly level with it. There are no horns in evidence, nor a flicker of intellect for that matter, so I rightly surmise I’m dealing with a cloven-footed dumb blonde. I’m very cross.

‘What on earth do you think you’re doing in here?’
She averts her gaze a tad sheepishly, fleetingly surveying the damage strewn around the large sunlit hallway. A spat with an incensed Sumo wrestler might have created less havoc. Lying drunkenly on its side is a kitchen chair, its buttermilk cushion trampled and caked in mud. Spiky shards of sun-seared glass from what was once a chunky rectangular vase adorning a coffee table glint on the cream marble tiles. Toppled oak logs, until now piled neatly at the side of the grizzled old stone fireplace, have rolled under a bench, some even venturing boldly as far as the French doors. Earthy hoof marks have smeared the glass panes of the windows and clots of dry mud collect around the front doorway.
‘Well?’ I say, tapping my foot impatiently.

No reply. If there’s one thing I’ve learned since living in rural Mallorca, it’s that sheep really are obtuse. Try and communicate with one of these bundles of bouclé and you hit a stone wall. Amphibians are different. For the last few years, I have spent many a happy moment conferring with an ungainly toad and a chorus of musical frogs in my pond, so much so that I’ve come to miss them in the winter when they’ve gone. Of course some might balk at the idea of talking amphibians but, trust me, with a little imagination anything is possible.

The sheep now gives a little shake of her ears and clops clumsily backwards, tottering like an old girl in oversized, high-heeled shoes. Her bedraggled Rasta locks hang limply over a huge girth, the dingy white wool matted and streaked with dirt. I tut loudly to which she responds with a low rumbling expletive of an ovine kind. The wide entrada gives on to the kitchen where, beyond cool terracotta tiles, the back door beckons. It’s flung wide open. Gracelessly, she makes a bolt for it and careers off in the direction of the swimming pool. I pad out onto the patio under the piercing scrutiny of the sun just in time to see my bulky intruder do a quick gambol around the terrace before scrambling down a stony bank into the orchard.

The Tramuntana mountain range which coils around our golden valley like a craggy grey lizard, dotted with clumps of dark pines and silver green olive trees, is pasted high in a dazzling cerulean sky. I place a hand over my eyes and watch as an eagle catches the wind and glides majestically over the terraces that lead up behind the finca, our old stone house. This is a not a day to be huddled over the computer in my office lair writing bits and pieces to earn a crust, but when, quite honestly, is it? Reluctantly, I slip back upstairs to my desk while trying not to focus on the mess below or the rampant sheep which is no doubt doing lumpy cart wheels across the field and baa-ing, ‘You can’t catch me!’ to the breeze.

This is the second sheep incident this week and the novelty’s wearing a little thin. A few days before, I returned from a brief sojourn in London together with Alan, my trusty Scot, and our son, Ollie, only to find the porch and terraces surrounding the finca covered in dung. On examining the sizeable droppings, Ollie and I hastily conjectured that this might be the trail left by some terrifying, new super-sized rodent, the likes of which had never been seen in the valley before. That was until Alan peered closer and with a dismissive shake of the head, told us they were no more than sheep offerings. We were mystified as to how any livestock had been able to enter our closed land. True, we hadn’t yet got round to protecting our entire terrain with sturdy stone walls, but we had invested in several bails of cheap meshed wire from the local ironmonger’s which we had wound like an untidy bandage around the exposed areas to keep out unwanted dogs and, up until now, sheep. After a quick search of the gardens we heard a loud baa-ing coming from the courtyard and raced up in time to see a woolly brown rump disappearing fast down the track.

We decided that in all likelihood the fugitive belonged to our neighbour, Rafael, and that it had by now found its way back to the flock. How one of his cerebrally-challenged ewes had found the temerity to trot the length of the communal track on her own, let alone break into our courtyard was a miracle in itself, but now it seemed she had an accomplice in crime, one bold enough to barge into the finca itself. There was nothing for it. We would have to take up the cudgel with Rafael tonight before his flock got out of hand. First, though, was the small matter of locating the whereabouts of our latest intruder, ewe number two.
Sitting at my computer, I aimlessly scan the various emails that have popped up on my screen. All of them can wait. Rather more pressingly I have an unfinished article for a magazine which has to be submitted in the morning. I glance at my watch face and realise that Alan will soon be back, having left earlier to collect Ollie from school in Palma. I can’t face clearing up the clutter downstairs and besides, it seems only right to leave the evidence undisturbed for the Scotsman’s return. There’s a knocking on the front door. Oh, now what? Will I ever get any peace?

A small lined face is peering sightlessly through the wide glass panes of the front door. My heart softens. It’s Margalida Sampol, my elderly widowed neighbour who lives at the bottom of the track. Grasping her wooden stick with her left hand, she stands patiently on the porch until I arrive to usher her inside.
‘Well, well,’ she sighs, speaking rapidly in Mallorcan, ‘it’s getting hotter, but, you know, the rains are coming. I feel it in the air.’

She pauses to mop her brow with a handkerchief while I dissect what she’s just said. Slowly, with Margalida’s help, I am beginning to understand the local Mallorcan dialect of Catalan, but still have to resort to Castilian Spanish for my responses. From the first day I met Margalida she explained that, with age, she found it increasingly difficult to remember Castilian vocabulary so we agreed to speak a hotchpotch of the two languages. She is hugely patient when I fail to understand what she is saying and will gesticulate and point to objects until the penny drops. Margalida is staring up at the sky. ‘Sembla que vol pleure.’

It looks like rain, she is muttering. I dread Margalida’s weather predictions because they have a relentless accuracy. I lean forward and give her a peck on both cheeks. I notice that her downy white hair has been teased into small lacquered waves that bob across her scalp.
‘Can I get you an orange juice?’
She squints at me with some distaste. ‘Pah! You have terrible oranges. Safer to drink vinagre.’
Since moving to this tranquil enclave of Sóller in the mountainous north west of Mallorca, we have grown resigned to Margalida’s insistence that our annual crop of oranges is an abomination to the taste buds. Why she is so vehement on this point without so much as sniffing the skin of one of our citrus orbs, I will never know. With my help, she hobbles over to the kitchen table, seemingly oblivious to the obstacles overturned on the floor, and helps herself to a sturdy oak chair.
‘There’s a new postman,’ she suddenly announces.

This will no doubt constitute hot news in the valley. Until now, Josep, the postman, has never made it as far as our finca, preferring instead to dump our mail at the town post office for collection whenever we happen to be passing by. Margalida fares better because her chalet is at the mouth of the track, and does not require the tiresome, lengthy walk needed to reach our terrain.
‘Good. Maybe the new one will make the effort to deliver our letters to us.’
She shakes her head in the negative. ‘I don’t think so. He’s not a local and he has long hair.’

I dissect this information carefully. ‘Have you met him?’
‘Segur. He’s given me your post this morning. That’s why I’m here.’
She delves into the pocket of her vast floral overall and slaps a handful of dog-eared envelopes on the table. I’ve often pondered the allure of the garish polyester overalls adopted by many elderly Mallorcan women. Even in sizzling heat, these voluminous, smock-like creations are unleashed, worn either over blouses and skirts or as a stand alone fashion statement, often accompanied by pop socks the colour of workmen’s tea, and woolly slippers. I fan through the pile, clocking that it’s mostly bills and unsolicited marketing bumph. It irritates me that junk mail has insidiously found its way to the mountains.

‘I thought it was a woman at first,’ Margalida is muttering. ‘I called him senyora, and he laughed and said his name was Jorge.’
Given her atrocious eyesight, I’m hardly surprised at this reported exchange.
‘Why didn’t he bring us the mail himself instead of making you walk all the way up here?’

She gives a scratchy little cough starting her explanation with pues, a handy Mallorcan expression, meaning ‘well’. ‘Pues, he was thinking about it, but I told him that Josep never bothered and always left your mail at the post office. He liked that idea. Anyway, I needed the walk so I offered to take it today.’
I sigh. That will no doubt have put the kibosh on any future postal deliveries to the house.
‘Jorge says he’s from Argentina.’
‘Really?’ I prompt, in hopeful anticipation of further revelations about our new postman. Absurdly, I find myself wondering whether he’s any good at catching sheep. Margalida doesn’t respond because, as is habitual these days, she has glided effortlessly to another plane. Her eyes, caught in a new, angelic dimension, are still and glassy and her breathing slow and ponderous. I wait a few moments and then give a polite cough. Rudely transported back to the present, she begins fiddling with the crumpled hankie on her lap and with small, quivering fingers reaches for the gilt crucifix that hangs about her neck. ‘I think the rain will come from the east.’
She rises slowly, steadying herself on her stick and for a brief moment peers round the kitchen and entrada. In some confusion, she fumbles about in her pocket and, unearthing some heavy-framed spectacles, settles them on the bridge of her petite nose and scans the room once more. Then she frowns and turns to face me.
‘Dios mios! What’s happened in here?’
Supporting her right arm, I guide her gently to the front door and try to sound nonchalant. ‘A stray sheep came in and ran amok.’
‘If you fenced them in, this wouldn’t happen.’
‘But we don’t have any. It isn’t our sheep.’

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